Are You Falling for This Common SAT Reading Trick?


Having scored a perfect 800 on SAT Reading and perfect 5s on the English Language and Literature AP tests, I know my way around passage-based reading exams for high school students. During several years’ time of tutoring high school students both one-on-one and in small groups, I’ve noticed a tendency for students to fall for a common trick of reading passages: including an answer choice with language that is lifted word-for-word from the passage itself, but that fails to appropriately answer the question. Students pick answer choices that contain word-for-word quotes from the passage because they’re drilled by teachers and the SAT itself to support their answer choices with evidence, and they make the mistaken assumption that just because language is found in the passage that it somehow must 1) be correct and 2) constitute evidence for a question they may or may not fully understand. In this article, I’ll teach you how to recognize word-for-word answers that are nonetheless wrong and provide you a powerful alternative. It all comes down to synonyms.


Look for Synonyms to Language in the Passage Rather Than Random Verbatim Quotes from the Passage


A big secret to figuring out the correct answer on SAT reading questions, however? Look for synonyms. It’s all about synonyms.


(Synonyms are words that mean roughly the same thing as other words. A thesaurus is your friend: it contains thousands of synonyms.)


To illustrate my point, I’ll present you with several SAT reading questions with incorrect answer choices that contain language lifted verbatim from the passage and correct answer choices that contain synonyms to language in the passage.


Here’s an example to show you what I mean. This question comes from the first passage of Official SAT Practice Test #1:


Which reaction does Akira most fear from Chie?


A) She will consider his proposal inappropriate.


B) She will mistake his earnestness for immaturity.


C) She will consider his unscheduled visit an



D) She will underestimate the sincerity of his




Right answer: A.


Wrong answer with language from passage: B.


Language “supporting” wrong answer B: “you know how children speak so earnestly, so hurriedly, so endearingly about things that have no importance in an adult’s mind? That’s how she viewed him, as a child.”


Why answer B is wrong in spite of its fake evidence: The question asks what AKIRA fears from CHIE. B, though it contains the word “earnestly” and implies Chie regards Akira as immature, tells the reader “how she viewed him” and NOT what he fears.


Language supporting correct answer A: “Please don’t judge my candidacy by the unseemliness of this proposal.”


Why answer A is right: In the above language, Akira himself speaks to Chie, imploring her please not to judge him for how he conducted his proposal in a manner that is unseemly (i.e. not in keeping with tradition.)


The writers of the SAT test questions are highly intelligent. They know exactly how to get lazy students to fall for trick answer choices. If you’re just matching words but not paying attention to what the question is asking and what those words are saying, you run the risk of falling prey to trick answer choices.


Remember: Match the IDEAS, Not Necessarily the Words


Here’s another example in which you’re looking for synonyms to support the correct answer choice. This one is taken from the fourth passage in Official SAT Practice Test #1:


Woolf characterizes the questions in lines 53-57 (“For we… men”) as both


A) controversial and threatening.


B) weighty and unanswerable.


C) momentous and pressing.


D) provocative and mysterious.


Correct answer: C.


Language to support correct answer: Woolf states, and I quote: “And they are very important questions, and we have very little time in which to answer them.”


Why C is the correct answer: “Very important” lines up with “momentous” and “very little time” lines up with “pressing.” Notice the synonyms! We’re matching up IDEAS.


Another example, also from the fourth passage of Official SAT Practice Test #1:


  1. The range of places and occasions listed in lines 72-76 (“Let us… funerals”) mainly serves to emphasize how


A) novel the challenge faced by women is.


B) pervasive the need for critical reflection is.


C) complex the political and social issues of the

day are.


D) enjoyable the career possibilities for women are.


Correct answer: B.


Language supporting correct answer B: Throughout the lines mentioned, Woolf repeats that women must “think.” “Let us think in offices; in omnibuses; while we are standing in the crowd watching Coronations and Lord Mayor’s Shows; let us think…in the gallery of the House of Commons; in the Law Courts; let us think at baptisms and marriages and funerals. Let us never cease from thinking


Why B is the correct answer: Once again, we have a synonym, a matching of ideas. Woolf repeats the words “let us think” for a reason. Why? She wants women to reflect on their situation and decide how to engage with society. “Think” matches up with “critical reflection,” and “pervasive” matches up with the fact that we should be reflecting critically at a variety of different locations.


Remember: When a Choice is TOO Matchy-Matchy is Is Most Likely WRONG


Avoid falling for trick SAT answer choices containing language lifted verbatim from the passage. How do you do that?


1) Understand the question. Understanding exactly what it’s asking, exactly whose opinion it wants, whether it’s asking about a character, a person in the passage, an idea in the passage, something the passage is implying, and so on and so forth. You’ve got to understand the angle of question in order to find answer choices that are accurately and faithfully answering that question.


2) Once you’re absolutely certain you understand the language of the question and can restate in your own words precisely what the question is asking, read the answer choices with an eye to understanding word for word what they might mean. The question and correct answer choice, when taken together, should form a completed thought. Test each choice along these lines.


3) Look for evidence from the passage itself to prove your answer choice correct. There can only be one right answer, and that answer will always be supported by language from the passage. However, the language in question, more likely than not, will represent a matching of IDEAS, synonyms between the wording of the answer choice and the wording of the area of the passage that answers the questions. Be suspicious of language lifted directly from the passage. Ask yourself, is this really answering the question, or is it merely a quote from the passage thrown in as a trick answer choice?


Though this tip, to look for synonyms to language in the passage, is a useful one, it’s no subsitute for the hard work of READING broadly and deeply, looking up unfamiliar words, and building your reading comprehension and vocabulary as a consequence of that hard work. There is no magical quick path to getting a great score on the SAT Reading section. Doing so often requires dozens of one-on-one lessons, taking eight or so practice tests, and taking three to five real SAT exams.


If you’re serious about improving your SAT Reading score and want help from tutors with a proven mastery of SAT test concepts and years of experience working one-on-one and in small groups with students, drop us a line! We’ll be happy to offer you free advice and answer any questions you may have about the SAT, ACT, or college admissions process.


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That’s it! For more SAT and ACT prep tips, as well as college admissions advice, check out the rest of our blog. Looking for 1-on-1 ACT or SAT prep tutoring? Want to join an SAT or ACT group class? Contact us today!

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